Date Night (2010) is an American action-comedy film written by Josh Klausner (The Fourth Floor, Shrek 3) and directed by Shawn Levy (Cheaper by the Doze, Night at the Museum) and exploits the wild popularity of SNL writer, comedian, and actress Tina Fey and funnyman du jour Steve Carell. Is it funny? I laughed here and there. Was it successful? It earned over $150 million in collective box office receipts. How was it received, should we expect Date Night part deux in the not so distant future? Reviews were mostly positive from critics near and far, but one can’t help but secretly wonder why a film reported to cost $55 million about the wild shenanigans of a middle-aged couple seeking solace from a mundane ‘married with children’ lifestyle costs so much?
If Date Night succeeds at all it is its quick elevator pitch. “A middle aged couple stuck in the hum-drum of their work-life-careers needs a respite from the kids, picks a fancy restaurant where not even the rich get a spot and after pretending to be someone else, get a table and become the targets of not-so nice arch criminals.” And then what happens? Sadly, a far-fetched and silly road trip through Manhattan with plot holes the size of man-hole covers and notable bit-parts populated with unexpected big name actors who sadly only show up long enough to blather and leave. What we realize, albeit too late, is that concept films can only get you so far before a weak script begins to peak out all over. Concept makes music videos stand out in a sea of music videos. Concept gets up in the morning and puts his or her pants on one leg at a time. Concept gives us insulted cavemen and a spinning, drumming bunny hitting a drum for the holidays. But concept films are much more difficult to pull off because once the newness and inventive concept wears away we’re left with characters and story. Weak characters and a flabby story leave us in the wasteland of the theater wondering if it’s too late to get the price of our movie ticket back or if the concession stand will give you a refund on the rest of your popcorn. In the case of Date Night, what ultimately begins as a better than average cocktail napkin movie idea loses something during the actual movie part of the concept – the part where people are supposed to talk and move around and do stuff. It is apparent we’ve entered the dangerous waters of the concept film when the dinghy we’re in, the shabby boat on loan in the middle of the ocean begins to take on water while the sun is going down and there’s only one oar and shore is nowhere to be found.
The film manages to float somewhere between moderately successful with a 67% score at Rotten Tomatoes and a score of 56 out of a 100 at Metacritic. Oddly, Roger Ebert gave the film three and a half stars and two thumbs up, the same rating he gave films like Bad Lieutenant Port of Call: New Orleans (inexcusably bad), The Road (No yellow brick road here, Chartreuse and mauve maybe), Crazy Horse (O.K. everyone is right once in a while), and Inception (see my extended notes here, please). I’d suggest the next time you consider a reviewer/critic of your liking take a moment to see what he/she is saying about other films. It might surprise you. Many will concede Mr. Ebert’s reviews are frequently laden with sentimentality these days and over generalizations in a desperate effort to retain his connection with the ever-changing and younger movie going public; I remain a long time supporter and reader of my Ebert’s reviews, btw, but am often befuddled at his rapid fire dedication to tweeting at all hours of the day and night that strike an alarming resemblance to nothing related to movies or movie reviews. Others, like Jim Vejvoda at IGN ride the fence, uncertain or unwilling whether to pat the film on the pack for inventiveness while simultaneously dispatching it for failed opportunities, or take a stand and in the end, falling down very nearly in the middle write further, “the film still manages to be a lot of fun.” Which is it, you might ask? Some are clearly smitten with every-girl-Jane Tina Fey who remains a popular personality both in front of the camera and off, a comedic writer of significance, but her attributes are unable to penetrate, let alone maintain the preposterousness of this film. Steve Carrell faired better in other films and on television, here he struggles to fit his comedic energy into the story in any meaningful way. Peter Travers of Rolling Stone would have you believe the painfully redundant and clichéd-drenched scenarios of ordinary folk are strong points in a film that is less about the reinvention of everyday romantic comedy as a reflection of the significance of hit television series like 30 Rock or The Office, but don’t be fooled. You’ll find Mr. Traver’s one line quips of “best movie of the year” on so many films you can’t help but imagine what films he doesn’t purport to be the best of the best.
It’s immeasurably difficult to translate humor that fills the tiny sets in our living rooms to the big screen. In the end we’re exhausted for having endured the journey and by the end when normalcy looms for Phil and Claire Foster who are obviously changed by their experience we realize slowly, painfully so, we do not share such transcendence. Katey Rich at Cinema Blend adds in her review, “It’s not the movie it could have been but at its best moments, it’ll do.” What happened to expectations and a general interest in a bit more than mediocre? I can’t help but think of audiences filing in and out of theaters with the same bland expression on their face, a giggle here and there but then right back to the routine they left behind two hours prior and not even afforded enough of an escape to last long enough to get them out of the parking garage. Movies hardly linger any more. Movies meander and disappoint yet we’re eager to pay the price of admission.
Date Night will appeal to audiences who like the idea of Tina Fey and Steve Carrell sharing screen time together in a silly, action-comedy film that contains guest appearances by a handful of very familiar faces in sketchy, walk-on parts surrounded by the concept of a ‘date night that goes terribly wrong’ and the ensuing shenanigans that follow. Date Night is not completely devoid of humor and plausibility, there are fun situations and knowing some of the comedic ad-lib scenes between the stars made it into the final film is a welcome bonus. If you’re expecting a clever, memorable romantic comedy there are dozens in the past ten years alone that surpass this film in nearly every way. Maybe you’ll get lucky and catch the movie for free at a friend’s house or your neighborhood rental place will throw in a copy with your next order. Regardless, don’t worry if you miss this one. Watch the trailer and consider the time you saved as an opportunity to do something much more rewarding.